Israel’s new gov’t is gunning for reform – but at who’s expense?

A month after Israel’s new gov’t took office, its ministers began to advanced a series of measures destined to appease the middle-class, but, does it matter if those reforms come at the expense of others, such as the ultra-Orthodox?


Without a doubt, the winds of reform and revolutions are blowing in our land. The finance minister declares “war” on behalf of the working man. The prime minister states that no labor strike will deter him from lowering the price of cars or from implementing a “huge” reform in the ports. The transportation minister has discovered that the sky’s the limit, the interior minister is considering extending daylight saving time, and the minister of communications is bent on shaking up the pay-per-view television market in favor of freebie TV. A month after the installation of the third Netanyahu government, the glue that binds its components has been found: Kahlonism, 3.0 ‏(provisional name‏).

Israeli ministers are gunning for reform.

Israeli ministers are gunning for reform. – Illustration by Amos Biderman


Everyone wants to step into the shoes of the great reformer who retired at his peak. Instead of the cell-phone companies, who bore the brunt of the burden posed by the consumerist vision of former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, we now have the ultra-Orthodox, the airlines, the car importers, the big workers’ unions, and cable and satellite TV companies. All are convenient targets.

Take the Haredim, for example. If they did not exist, Yair Lapid would have to invent them. After two or three tricky weeks, amid problematic Facebook posts, aggravated by various gaffes, it was the ultra-Orthodox who provided the finance minister with the opportunity to hit his stride again. It took only one appearance by him in the Knesset, in which he hurled an array of ancient ‏(albeit true‏) cliches at them, to get him back into the headlines as a superhero.

Lapid’s aides say he had intended to take the podium and calmly spell out his economic vision. But the incessant screams and catcalls of MK Moshe Gafni ‏(United Torah Judaism‏) and the militant speech of MK Meir Porush ‏(UTJ‏), who spoke ahead of Lapid, obliged him to hit back with an appropriate, Zionist-secular response.

The Haredim are easy prey: 80 percent of the public seems to be against them. In the past week, they lost it and played into Lapid’s hands like rookies. Did they learn a lesson? Not necessarily. After all, they too have their constituencies, who expect them to rise up against what is about to be inflicted on them.

Lapid intends to batter the Haredim in the budget. And not only when it comes to slashing child allowances, yeshiva allocations and grants to ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. Additionally, the treasury will insert a clause stipulating “full exploitation of wage-earning ability” in every possible instance as a condition for receipt of housing, education, eligibility for preschools and whatever else the officials can think of.

The man who compared himself to Moses will now be able to tell his voters: “True, things are tough for you. True, you are groaning and suffering. True, I screwed you even though I promised to look after you. But, hey, things are a lot harder for the Haredim, who lived at our expense all these years, and didn’t work and didn’t do army service. So, take consolation in knowing that in another two years, when you emerge from the mire, they will still be stuck in it, up to their necks.”


The new triumvirate

In the year 43 B.C.E., three power-hungry senators were serving in Rome: Octavius, Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, they established what was called the “second triumvirate,” and took control of the empire, consolidating their rule by means far from elegant, such as wholesale murder of their rivals.

Emil Salman

Ofer Eini is a wounded lion. In the words of Ehud Barak, during a different era: He climbed a tree like Tarzan and came down like Popeye. – Photo: Emil Salman

This week, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz found himself in the center of a triumvirate, alongside the prime minister and the finance minister. The three of them worked to get the cabinet to approve an aviation agreement with the European Union, which is supposed to increase the number of flights to and from Europe and lower ticket costs for passengers. While pushing through the agreement, they ran roughshod over Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini.

Katz wanted to get the agreement approved before the election, but Netanyahu was afraid that chaos would ensue and asked Katz to freeze the initiative. On the eve of Passover, Katz got a surprising phone call from Yair Lapid. Why not go for that open-skies agreement now, the new finance minister asked. No problem, Katz replied, but we have to talk to the prime minister. Lapid called back during the intermediate days of the festival and said: I spoke to the PM, he’s for it. Great, Katz said. Lapid had a request: for Katz to let him add his name to the motion for the agenda that would be put forward in the cabinet. Generously, Katz agreed.

In Sunday’s cabinet meeting, when the ministers found Lapid’s name on the document, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar remarked, “Never before has generosity on this scale been seen around this table. Since when do we agree to share the credit?”

Wednesday last week, after Independence Day, a meeting was held in the office of Harel Locker, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, with the participation of officials from the finance and transportation ministries and from El Al. The Israeli airlines, the group decided, would be compensated for the financial losses they would suffer from the open-skies agreement; the government would underwrite 80 percent of their security costs. El Al turned to Eini, who did what he knows how to do best: The Histadrut leader exerted heavy pressure on the finance minister and the prime minister to postpone the vote on the agreement for a month.

The next day, Katz received reports that Lapid was willing to accede to Eini’s request. Katz realized that without Lapid, he would have a far harder time. The two spoke on the phone and decided that Katz would visit Lapid at his home on Friday. In the morning, before leaving, Katz spoke to Eini, after listening to an interview with the Histadrut chief on Israel Radio. “It’s all up to the prime minister and the finance minister,” Eini had said. He did not bother to mention the transportation minister.

“Everyone is willing to postpone the vote,” Eini told Katz on the phone. “Not me,” Katz retorted. He told Eini that he would agree to negotiate with the airlines − but only after the agreement was approved. “The Histadrut cannot prevent the State of Israel from signing an agreement with the European Union,” Katz said to Eini. “We have held dozens of meetings about this agreement in the past few years. You don’t even know the details.”

Eini argued, but Katz reminded him of a past episode: “In the labor dispute with Israel Railways, I told you not to gamble on Gila Edri [the aggressive railways union chairwoman, who was finally ousted], and now I suggest that you not gamble on Asher Edri [the chairman of the El Al union, no relation to Gila].” The call ended without agreement.

Katz headed for Ramat Aviv. He brought Lapid a present: a bottle of olive oil, which his wife, Ronit, makes in their moshav, Kfar Ahim, near Kiryat Malakhi. “I was surprised by the gap between your determination two days ago and your lack of determination now,” Katz said to Lapid. When he emerged, he told the media that the agreement would be brought up as is for cabinet approval.

Before the cabinet meeting, on Sunday, the Likud ministers convened for their weekly session. Katz found Netanyahu set on getting the agreement approved, despite the threats by El Al and the Histadrut to retaliate. What Katz didn’t know is that at the end of last week, Netanyahu had considered the possibility of deferring the vote for two weeks. He changed his mind when he spotted a golden
opportunity to drive a wedge between Lapid and Eini on the eve of budget discussions. If Netanyahu had agreed to a delay, not only would he have handed Eini a victory, he would also have strengthened the bond between the Histadrut chairman and the finance minister. From the moment the prime minister came out in support of the reform, he left Lapid no choice but to join him and Katz. The result: bad blood between Lapid and Eini.

At the cabinet meeting, Katz exulted in his victory over Eini. “What’s he going to do?” he chortled. “Declare war on Europe?”

Eini is a wounded lion. Or, in the words of Ehud Barak, during a different era: He climbed a tree like Tarzan and came down like Popeye. The agreement this week to increase the funding for the airlines’ security costs from the original 80 percent to 97.5 percent ‏(subject to streamlining efforts‏) was reached above Eini’s head, in talks between the treasury, the Transportation Ministry and the airlines. Lapid did not want to give it to Eini.

That was a mistake. There is a direct line between the Labor Party convention, whose participants ignored Eini and passed, against his will, a motion by leader Shelly Yacimovich to amend the party’s constitution, and the scornful behavior of Netanyahu, Lapid and Katz toward Eini this week. The Histadrut leader is like Samson with his hair shorn, but he hasn’t yet said the last word.


Odds and ends

1. If Netanyahu’s heart was touched by what Lapid is inflicting on the Haredim, his former “natural partners,” he certainly will not shed a tear when he and Lapid take on the union of seaport workers. The intention to build a privately owned port will almost certainly trigger a general strike and the closure of all the seaports. Netanyahu has already asserted that he is not
a-f-r-a-i-d! A senior source in the Transportation Ministry said this week that in the absence of any other alternative, the government will send in the army to operate the ports. Someone is very gung-ho.

2. Ehud Olmert’s declaration, in a private meeting with donors in London, that he intends to run for prime minister in the next election is bizarre, puzzling and irrelevant: ‏(A‏) Because this is not how such announcements are made; ‏(B‏) because the next election is four years off; ‏(C‏) because this is a deja-vu that takes us back to before the election we just had; ‏(D‏) because the Holyland luxury residential complex trial is still under way and the state’s appeal in the Talansky and Rishon Tours cases hasn’t yet been heard; and ‏(E‏) because Kadima is a dead duck and Olmert’s protege Lapid isn’t likely to be considering the idea of stepping aside in favor of Uncle Udi.

3. MK Aryeh Deri ‏(Shas‏) has heard the talk around Rabbi Ovadia Yosef about Shas’ imminent return to the coalition. He isn’t buying the bluff that someone is selling to the party’s aged spiritual leader. “Bibi and Lapid are working together … and it looks to me like they are getting along well,” Deri said this week. It wasn’t by chance that Deri was silent a few days ago, when Ashkenazi Haredim accused Lapid of posting his musing on Facebook on Shabbat. “I have a rule,” Deri said. “I don’t go into people’s homes. If he doesn’t want to honor Shabbat, okay. What business is it of mine?”


The tense relations between the Haredim and Lapid pale in the face of what is going on between the Deri and Eli Yishai camps within Shas, ahead of a possible decision on which of the men will head the party. At present, half a year before the municipal elections, Shas’ activists don’t know whom to consult with.

“This situation is terrible,” Deri admitted this week. “We have reached the red line. Our people our crying out that they have had enough, that the time has come for a decision. It is impossible to continue like this. I hope the decision is made in the days ahead, maybe even by the end of the week.”


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